Appellate Judge Tom Becker is happy just to get a funnel cake at the beach, much less...
"Go ahead and say it…I'm no good!"
Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach is an alternately fascinating and frustrating minor noir. It might have been a significant noir, but studio interference caused the film to be reworked to make it more audience-friendly than the director's original vision might have allowed. It's an atmospheric, haunting work that never quite comes together, but makes an impression nonetheless.
Scott (Robert Ryan, Bad Day at Black Rock) is a Coast Guard officer recovering from injuries he sustained in a torpedo attack. Physically, Scott is healing well, but mentally…not so much. He impetuously proposes a quick marriage to his girlfriend, pretty blonde Eve (Nan Leslie), but she gently suggests that they wait a bit.
While making his rounds on the beach, he meets the darkly beautiful Peggy (Joan Bennett, The Woman in the Window). Peggy is unhappily married to Tod (Charles Bickford, The Song of Bernadette), who'd been a successful and famous artist until an accident left him blind—an accident caused by Peggy while the two were having a drunken fight. Scott is drawn to Peggy, and horrified at the physical and mental cruelty she endures from her much-older husband. Tod realizes Scott is a threat, but he goes out of his way to get close to the younger man, alternately putting him down and drawing him closer. Scott becomes convinced that Tod is faking his blindness and sets out to prove it so that Peggy can be free—but while Peggy claims to want Scott, it's never quite clear exactly where her affections truly lie.
Forget the plot; much of The Woman on the Beach veers between inherently silly and startlingly cruel. The idea that Tod might be faking his blindness seems like a soap opera chestnut, and Scott's attempt at unmasking him—nearly killing him by stranding the artist at the beach near some cliffs to "prove" that he can see well enough to get home safely—makes Scott more like a creep than a flawed hero. Much of the dialogue is fairly pedestrian, and even at a spare 71 minutes, the film seems a little slow.
But there's a lot to like here. Renoir provides subtext and bits of back story that transcend the simple plot machinations, and much of the visual imagery is arresting.
Renoir calls upon all four classical elements—earth, air, fire, and water—to tell his story. When Scott first meets Peggy, he is riding through a fog at the beach. They go to her home, where she builds a fire. Smoke—from fires or cigarettes—features prominently in many scenes. When Scott tires to unmask Tod, the earth gives way under the older man's feet; there's a conflict on the ocean, and a huge fire figure into the denouement.
Why Scott becomes so obsessed with Peggy isn't readily apparent—Bennett is certainly beautiful, but she's at best a reluctant seductress. Scott's all-consuming infatuation seems to be deeper, going to an almost spiritual level; in one scene, he dreams of her face framed in fire and rides out to a wrecked ship on the beach hoping to find her there—and she is there, waiting for him. "I knew you'd come," she says. Does he see her as another lost soul, like himself, or is trying to save her as atonement for some past sin? Renoir offers no simple, transparent answers.
Peggy's relationship with Tod is far more complex than the standard "gorgeous, unsatisfied younger woman trapped with an older man." Peggy is trapped, but it's a trap of own making, and one that she might not be as eager to be freed from as she lets on. Her life with Tod was exciting and debauched, with the two enjoying long nights of drinking champagne and love making. She blinded him in a drunken rage, and there's little doubt that these drunken rages were a common occurrence. She wants that life back, and even as Tod abuses her, it's clear she thrives on self-destructive passion—something that would never be there with Scott.
Tod is craven, selfish, intellectually superior, condescending, and self-sustaining. He treats his blindness as a kind of adventure and uses it to one-up Peggy, another power game in a relationship that seems rooted in power games. When he and Peggy talk about Scott, we wonder if the younger man isn't merely a pawn in one of these power games.
But even with all this, Tod's not a one-dimensional villain; on the contrary, he's a fully fleshed-out character, flawed, but more recognizably human—and in some ways, more appealing—than the occasionally lumbering Scott. Like Scott, he's also someone who's suffered a tragedy and is readjusting his life, but Tod seems better able to handle his infirmity.
Bickford is excellent here as the volatile artist. I don't know that Joan Bennett has gotten the credit she deserves as an actress, but her work in The Woman on the Beach is outstanding. She and Bickford make a believable long-married couple, their history laid bare in every exchange.
The disc from Warner Archive is decent, the full-frame transfer in pretty good shape for a film of its age, though the audio track is a bit weak. As is the case with Warner Archive, there are no supplements on this disc, and that's a shame. The Woman on the Beach is a film that certainly deserves context.
Sort of an existential thriller wrapped in an occasionally inane romantic melodrama, The Woman on the Beach is worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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